A report released Wednesday in New York City reminds leaders how continuously foster youth are overlooked in school, a population seemingly invisible when it comes to their particular needs.
The Advocates for Children report found significant disparities between the roughly 7,500 students in foster care and those living at home, with kids in the system experiencing higher rates of suspension, absenteeism and school instability, and lower math and test scores and graduation rates. The findings draw on 2016 to 2021 data from the Department of Education, the Administration for Children’s Services and other agencies.
“Having served as a foster parent and as an educator, I know all too well the challenges faced by children in foster care, and I take the troubling findings of this new report very personally,” New York City council member Rita Joseph, chair of the Committee on Education stated in a press release. “It’s clear we need to shine a light on educational outcomes for students in the foster system.”
Last month, Joseph introduced a bill that would require the Department of Education to publicly report data on students in foster care when officials report on other student groups.
At present, reports on the educational outcomes of foster youth in the city are sporadic, and are not required to be tracked by any government agency.
But the information that has emerged is troubling. Last June, the mayor’s office conducted a study that found only one in four New York City public school students who spent time in foster care graduated on time in 2019. The graduation rates were far lower than previously understood, and highlighted the many ways youth advocates say the city is “failing” students in care.
The Department of Education has aimed to address the challenges of foster youth in the city’s public schools, most recently by launching a new division focusing specifically on their needs. But the December 2021 launch was slow to take off until recently. Currently, eight of the nine staff positions are filled, according to the department.
Jane Lyle, spokesperson for the education department, said her agency is committed to providing all students, including those in foster care, with the support and resources they need.
“The issues and findings cited in this report comprise our motivation for the creation of a team wholly devoted to serving our students in foster care,” she said.
Lyle added that the new team is now working with school administrators, social workers and counselors to increase communications between foster parents and biological parents, among other efforts. Information about the education rights of foster parents and biological parents is also being provided.
Children’s Services Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said in a statement emailed to The Imprint that his agency “is committed to providing youth in foster care with the support and services they need to thrive.”
In addition to optimism over the new office focusing on foster youth, he noted a recent expansion of one-on-one coaching and tutoring for youth in foster care through the local Fair Futures program, which now begins in middle school and continues to age 26 with education, career and social support.
“As we continue our work to improve educational outcomes for youth in foster care,” Dannhauser said, “we will continue to look at how we can support students in a more targeted way, and we will make sure the voices of the young people are reflected in all we do, as they help to us shape the initiatives that support them.”
Students who spend time in foster care each year in New York City are disproportionately children of color. According to the recent data analysis, over half of preschool and school-aged children in foster care are Black and live in high poverty neighborhoods in the Bronx, east Brooklyn and southeast Queens.
Over the past four years, almost half of city students in foster care were chronically absent, missing at least one out of every ten school days. Fewer than a quarter of 16- to 20- year-old students in care attended high school regularly, according to city data.
These missed days of instruction have real-life impacts on school children, the report authors state, leading to difficulties staying on track academically, creating relationships with peers and teachers and developing social-emotional skills. The cumulative result could be disengagement from school altogether.
In addition to high rates of absenteeism, foster youth are more likely to be suspended than their peers. Between 2016 and 2019, the city’s education department issued between 123 and 141 suspensions for every 1,000 students in foster care. In comparison, only 33 to 36 suspensions were given per 1,000 of all students in New York City public schools.
Suspensions lasting between six and 180 days were also far higher for foster youth. They were issued “exclusionary discipline” at more than five times the rate of their peers.
Erika Palmer, a supervising attorney for Advocates for Children, said foster children have gone through traumatic experiences leading to their out-of-home placements and they’ve been separated from friends, family and community. That can lead to students being less engaged, feeling isolated and becoming disruptive in class.
“Some students might act out because of what’s going on if they’re having difficulty processing those experiences,” Palmer said, and that can lead to suspension or removal from mainstream public schools into more restrictive special education settings.
With constant upheaval marking the lives of so many of these young people, school is one place where they can have a sense of stability. But foster children are often uprooted and transferred out of their home schools.
According to state law, school districts and foster care agencies are required to keep students in their schools of origin, unless it’s in a student’s best interest to transfer. But city data shows that often isn’t the case. Even prior to the pandemic, almost one in four students in foster care transferred schools each year, according to recent data findings.
Before the pandemic, almost a quarter of all students in foster care switched schools at least once, and 8.5% transferred to two or more schools. Largely due to remote learning during the pandemic, there was a slight decrease in transfers the following year.
Changing schools frequently can lead to academic disruption, grade retention and a decline in reading and math scores. And the data show better academic performance among students who didn’t transfer schools.
Reading and math scores also remain stubbornly low for foster youth. The recent analysis shows that between 2017 to 2019, 85% of foster youth aren’t proficient in math and four out of five are not reading-proficient.
To address the many challenges foster youth are currently facing in the public school system, Advocates for Children listed numerous recommendations for the city’s new foster care division within the education department.
Recommendations include training school staff on the needs and legal rights of foster youth, guaranteeing transportation and working with school agencies to promote consistent school attendance.
Palmer said her group’s latest data findings will help provide the most targeted support to these students and provide all parties within New York City’s education system — including superintendents and school staff — an in-depth look at the gravity of the issues they face.
“Just because we’ve known about this for a long time doesn’t mean that it’s not urgent,” Palmer said. “It’s always been urgent, it’s just now, as advocates, we have the data to back us up.”